Though the pilot of Six Feet Under famously opens with the sudden death of the head of the Fisher family in a violent car crash, it was, at the end of the day, a deceptively quickly resolved family trauma, necessarily providing the main dramatic impetus for the action of the show, setting the wheels of the Fisher family’s five season trials in motion. The grief over the loss of Nathaniel Sr. was tempered by his immediate return as a sardonic, ghostly commentator on the lives of the rest of the Fishers, and though their mourning is portrayed, to be sure, as a signal event, an overture to the themes of the show, it is most significant as a catalyst pushing them along the road of personal upheaval and growth. Death comes home, but oddly, for all the right reasons.
Thereafter, through the first two and a half seasons, the Fishers perch in a weird state where, though they live over and work among the dead, death never directly intrudes back into their personal space. Professionalism and familiarity with death– with the business of death—perhaps inures them to the stark realities of a sudden death for the living, despite having gone through this themselves so recently. The routine of working day in and day out with others’ horrible personal loss and grief has walled them off from the lurking emotional fallout.
The disappearance and death of Nate’s wife Lisa late in season three changes all of this, shattering the already fragile shell that the Fishers – Nate especially—have circumscribed their world in, and ensuring that they would never take grief, fear and death for granted again. The ominous creep of dread that permeates this four episode arc – and the finality with which the crows come home to roost—radiates out to contaminate the remainder of the series. After this, nothing can ever be the same, for the characters, for the audience, for the show. Six Feet Under jettisons much of its quirky humor, becoming increasingly erratic, morbid and terrifying, an entropic drift dragging the characters apart even as they walk along together, one foot in the grave.
The show quietly builds up to all this, hiding things in plain sight throughout the third season, laying its trap expertly, and then pulling the wire without the audience noticing it. But when it is pulled, it catches everything –though, in the end, not everything that comes about is terrible. Just don’t tell that to Nate. His ordeal – his rapid unraveling and descent into a booze-fueled, self-pitying nervous breakdown – is equally parts terrifying, emotionally harrowing and pathetic. As usual, Nate becomes the focus of attention (both his own and that of the show), but the fracturing of his mental and emotional state holds up a fragmented mirror to the unraveling of the rest of the Fishers, and to us all, our reactions to his grief providing some sort of clue to the state of our own broken souls.
Here’s how the breakdown breaks down, episode by episode, mostly from Nate’s point of view:
“Everyone Leaves” (S3:10): This sets the wheels in motion, nestling Lisa’s departure (to go visit her sister up the coast) in with all the other usual Fisher drama. Nate and Lisa seem to be the only happy ones, actually, getting along for the first time in a long time, trying to “make love work” (to echo the title of an earlier episode where the couple tried to rekindle their sputtering relationship). Her trip seems incidental, not worthy of attention… except that one, little throw-away line Lisa says as Nate is seeing her off: “Are you trying to get rid of me?” Boy, will that one loom large and ominous.
Meanwhile, Claire leaves Russell in dramatic, adolescent fashion; David leaves Keith after a big fight with Keith’s homophobic father; and Ruth breaks up in frustration with her young paramour, Arthur. Everyone leaves someone….
So Nate calls Lisa a bit later, and they chat briefly as she sits on the hood of her car, staring out over the ocean. The connection between them breaks off, and Nate hangs up. He calls later, with no answer, then more repeatedly, as the night goes on and Lisa doesn’t call back. He calls her sister, who says that Lisa still hasn’t shown up. The first nervous butterflies (or crows) start to beat their wings – in Nate, in us. The episode concludes with a montage of the various Fishers going to bed that night, falling into a nightmare from which they won’t wake up anytime soon.
“Death Works Over Time” (S3:11): An avalanche of oddball deaths (and presumably the death of Lisa off screen, though we don’t know this while watching for the first time) opens the episode, all heralded by an earthquake, signaling seismic events rumbling up from below for the Fishers. The tone becomes more ominous and sinister, the lighting dimmer, and Nate becomes increasingly frantic, drinking and smoking, unable to sleep. He ends up holed up in a hotel at the beach where Lisa’s car is found, David and Claire showing up in the middle of the night to comfort him, even though he is starting to drift beyond their reach.
“Twilight” (S3:12): Weeks have now passed. Nate begins to have waking nightmares of possible, increasingly gruesome scenarios for Lisa’s disappearance, and is haunted ceaselessly by visions of Lisa herself, who alternately chides him and consoles him. He drinks himself blind in a local bar, and has anonymous rough sex with various floozies.
Meanwhile, Claire experiences a harrowing loss of her own, going through with an abortion, a trauma she can’t share with any of the rest of the family. As the anesthesiologist puts her under, she tells Claire that she will be sedated with “Twilight”, a waking sedative where “you’re not really gone, but not really here”, which tidily sums up not only Nate’s near catatonic stupor, but the emotional blinders all the Fishers have brought down.
“I’m Sorry, I’m Lost” (S3:13): Buried under a final tidal wave of despair, Nate bottoms out, running out on his job, on caring for infant daughter Maya, on his own self worth. Early in the episode, he goes out for a cigarette at 2 AM, and charges off down the road, literally vanishing into night, into the abyss. He lashes out at everyone, blaming Ruth for keeping him home after Nate Sr. died, which has lead, in his fevered mind, in a straight line to all this trauma and horror.
After receiving a phone call from the police, informing him that Lisa’s remains have washed up on a beach, he drinks himself into oblivion at the dive bar and, not content beating himself up emotionally, he taunts one of the rougher patrons to kick the shit out of him. Blood soaked, bruised and beaten, Nate drunkenly careens down the highway, heckled and chastised by Lisa and urged to drive over a cliff by the cackling ghost of Nate Sr. Nate winds up at Brenda’s door, bloody, beaten to a pulp. Fade to white: Lisa Kimmel Fisher 1967 - 2003.